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Hurricane Evacuees Give Mayor an Earful

New Orleans' C. Ray Nagin and FEMA officials hold a meeting in Houston to assure the displaced and frustrated their city will rise again.

November 28, 2005|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Months of frustration and uncertainty turned to angry shouts and tears Sunday as a church filled with Hurricane Katrina evacuees confronted New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin at an often-raucous town hall meeting here.

It was one of several meetings Nagin is holding outside of Louisiana as a way to assure displaced residents that the city will survive and prosper.

But many of the hundreds who filled the domed sanctuary of the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church clearly were not convinced, complaining of an unresponsive state and federal bureaucracy and of conflicting reports on how and when one should try to reclaim homes and other property in New Orleans.

"You're telling people to come back home, but what are they coming home to? There's nothing here," said Henry Jones, 57, who flew to Houston from his temporary home in North Carolina for the meeting. When Jones, a retired refinery worker, visits his destroyed neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward, "I feel like I'm back in Vietnam. A lot of people are afraid to go back home."

Nagin said that electricity and water were working in most of the city and that public schools would reopen in January. "There will be an explosion of school activity after the first of the year," he said.

And those willing to work at formerly minimum-wage jobs at Sears or Burger King can earn bonuses of up to $16 an hour. New Orleans is coming back, but it will take time, he said.

"You cannot entirely fix a city that was entirely devastated in three or four months," Nagin said.

When the mayor opened the floor to questions, two lines 50 people deep immediately formed, and a meeting scheduled for two hours stretched into five. Is the air safe to breathe? Residents seemed not to trust EPA reports that it is. Will the contaminated topsoil be removed so people won't be exposed to toxins? Nagin said officials were debating a plan for soil removal.

Several people asked whether the hardest-hit areas -- such as New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward -- would be rebuilt.

"I don't want to invest money gutting and cleaning my house and be told later it's all over," said Ingrid LeBlenc, 54, a day-care worker. Nagin said all areas of New Orleans would be rebuilt.

Ane Coleman, 45, wanted to know who would guarantee that the levees -- which broke after Katrina blew through Louisiana -- would hold in the future.

"Why in the name of God would anyone move back to New Orleans if the same thing will happen next year during hurricane season and your house is destroyed again? That's something I don't want to embark on," she said.

Congress is resisting the city's billion-dollar requests to rebuild the city's levees, Nagin said, and New Orleans surely doesn't have the money to fund the effort.

"Your city is a broke city," the mayor said. "We have no revenue coming in. We have no tourists coming in and a man has to beg for help" in Washington. "If this would have happened in Orange County, Calif., they wouldn't be treating us like this."

Nagin urged residents to "get vocal and start making some noise" about getting more federal money. "Folks are not hearing from us enough. They give me a song and dance.... I need y'all to start sending e-mails, letters, making calls.... They're going to give us the money because we're going to demand it."

Much of the residents' anger was directed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was accused of problems including misplacing documents, giving outdated information and having bad phone manners. Seven FEMA representatives sat stone-faced in a pew behind Nagin as the residents railed.

"Is this a joke or what?" asked Georgia Modica, 49, of FEMA's response to the hurricane. "We are being treated as less than human beings and we don't appreciate it."

FEMA's Dennis Lee, taking the podium, told several people to speak to him after the meeting so that he could address their individual issues. The third time he made this suggestion, the audience groaned. "Tell all of us what to do, not just a few," someone shouted from the audience.

"I don't happen to be omnipotent and don't know your individual cases," Lee said sharply.

Lack of housing in New Orleans seemed to be the biggest issue. Where are evacuees to live, with their houses condemned and FEMA slow to set up temporary housing? In Texas, residents have yearlong leases on apartments paid for by the city of Houston. "I don't even have a place to lay my head in New Orleans. Why would I go back?" Modica said.

Malinda Boucree, a 38-year-old pharmacist, wants to know how she can reclaim the life she loved in New Orleans.

"Everything is still up in the air. No one seems to know what's going on; the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing," she said before the meeting. "I'm living two lives -- one in Houston and one in New Orleans. The hurricane is over for people who watched it on TV, but it's not over for us who lived through it."

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